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Hundreds of bills targeting the trans and queer community have been introduced across state legislatures this year – a new record. Louisiana, like many other states, has seen a slew of anti-LGBTQ+ bills this session. But the state is somewhat of an outlier in the South, and activists have been successful in pushing back against these types of bills in the past. Sophie Ziegler joins today’s episode to show us what legislative organizing looks like in the state – and what it can teach us about the fight for trans rights.
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Featuring Music credits – via Pixabay Making Contact Team
Music credits – via Pixabay
Making Contact Team
Lucy Kang: In a wide swath of America, states are introducing and passing laws that target transgender and queer people – at a record rate.
Pearl Ricks: We were being who we want to be, and that was an agitation to a system, to a system that already was failing in terms of its oppression.
Lucy Kang: These bills would effectively criminalize trans people from simply existing in public life. Trans people in this country face restrictions on life-saving healthcare, bans on names and pronouns, and arrests for just using the bathroom.
Pearl Ricks: You’re going to take who you think is the easiest to pick off, and those are gonna be the folks that the language to protect them is not in the law.
Lucy Kang: And it may be leading to what’s being called an internal refugee crisis. Reporter Erin Reed has calculated that up to 260 thousand trans people may have already left their home states because of anti-trans legislation. And over a million more may be thinking about doing the same.
She’s created a map of anti-trans legislation in the country. Nineteen states are marked in deep red and categorized as having the “Worst Active Anti-Trans Laws.” And that’s not even including Florida, which is simply labeled “Do Not Travel.”
In June, Louisiana moved into the worst risk category. The state legislature introduced a variety of bills this session.
Over the past few months, I’ve been working with Sophie Ziegler to bring you a story. It’s about the ways activists are fighting for trans rights in Louisiana and how they had been more successful than other Southern states in their legislative organizing.
So let me bring them on to help me introduce the piece.
Lucy Kang: Hey Sophie. How’s it going?
Sophie Ziegler: Hey Lucy. I’m doing great. How are you?
Lucy Kang: I’m good too, can’t complain. Really excited that we’re gonna be getting out your story for Making Contact. And so just to kind of start us off, can you introduce yourself for our listeners?
Sophie Ziegler: Oh, absolutely. My name is Sophie Ziegler. I am an oral historian and legislative organizer here in Louisiana, specifically based in Baton Rouge. And I’ve been working a lot over the last several months on the legislative session that we’ve been having here. The 2023 legislative session. We’ve been seeing a lot of anti-trans bills coming through and just been staying busy with all of that.
Lucy Kang: Yeah. So tell us how this story came about. Why did you want to produce this story, and why do you think it’s important to tell right now?
Sophie Ziegler: Yeah, that’s a great question. So just like across the country here in Louisiana, we’re seeing a lot of anti-trans bills being introduced and unfortunately passing sometimes. And just like the rest of the country, we have a beautiful community of trans and gender nonconforming folks. But we are a little bit different in one regard, and that is our community here seems more politically active, maybe it’s safe to say, than in some other states. So we have a long history of being able to fight back against anti-trans bills here, anti-LGBTQ+ bills.
And a lot of that has to do with the fact that we’ve had openly trans and gender non-conforming folks working in the legislature, working in the governor’s office even. We’ve been around. We’ve known lawmakers. We’ve introduced ourselves. It’s hard to demonize a group of people that you happen to see at lunch every day.
And so I think Louisiana is in a particular space right now where we’re seeing the effects of the national trends happening. And we see the effects of those trends running up against long held relationships and relationships that have been built with a lot of effort and a lot of care over the last decade.
Lucy Kang: So just to give listeners a peek behind the curtain, we had this whole conversation about whether, you know, in our story people would be able to keep up just with all these like bills and, and, and the numbers of the bills that are coming out.
Sophie Ziegler: Yeah, absolutely. And this has sort of shifted as the session went on. So, you know, at the beginning a lot of things will be introduced and they might not even all make it to committee. So at the very, very beginning of each session, it can look much worse than it ultimately is. But here in Louisiana we have seen a variety of bills. And like, as you mentioned, they all have their own numbers and they can be a little tricky to keep track of.
Lucy Kang: They include: HB648, a ban on gender affirming healthcare for minors; HB466, a ban on discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools; HB81, which requires students to use names on their birth certificate and the pronouns of their assigned gender at birth. Two others would restrict and censor library books that mention LGBTQ+ issues in public schools and libraries.
So we get to meet, you know, a couple of student activists in the story. And can you talk about like why we ultimately decided just to use their initials in identifying them?
Sophie Ziegler: Yeah. The student activists, they, they fantastic and such a lovely part of the reporting process for the story. We chose to use their initials just as a means of caution, just as an additional layer of being careful with other people’s stories, being careful with other people’s narratives and identities.
So one thing that we always want to keep track of here in Louisiana, but I think probably everywhere, right, when we’re thinking about those of us who are taking a stand and pushing back sometimes in public ways against very powerful and very loud and often very mean spirited individuals, we want to just be sure that those of us who are collecting, documenting, and sharing their stories are as thoughtful as possible. So this is just another layer of, uh, attempting to protect young people who are doing a lot of brave work in Louisiana right now.
Lucy Kang: This story has a lot of like heavy topics in it. And there were moments in it that seemed, you know, very, very challenging to report. So I guess my final question is just, you know, does anything give you hope at this point?
Sophie Ziegler: Oh, Lucy, there was so much hope in every instance. It’s really, that’s one of the things that made this not only doable, but enjoyable. So there are a lot of heavy topics. There were a lot of difficult moments over the last several months thinking about this area, reporting on this area, talking to people who were deeply, deeply invested in the outcomes of this legislative session.
There’s also a deep understanding that this is a long term struggle, that any one session could go well or could go badly. But we will be back at it again next year. But you always talk about joy. We always find joy. We try to lift each other up throughout. So hope is a constant theme all the way through. It’s been really beautiful.
Lucy Kang: Well, I’m so glad that we’re able to like, get this story out, and I’m so excited for our listeners to get to hear it. And just thank you so much for all your work on this. It’s really been a pleasure.
Sophie Ziegler: Oh my gosh, thank you. I’m so excited to be part of this.
Lucy Kang: And with that, let’s take a listen to the story brought to us by Sophie.
Sophie Ziegler: It’s March 31 – Trans Day of Visibility.
And students at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans have organized a walkout.
This is sound from a video posted by local reporter Marie Fazio. In the video, students are holding signs like “Fight for trans lives” and waving rainbow pride flags.
Hundreds of students walked out of classes that day to protest anti-trans bills introduced in the Louisiana legislature: like a bill that would ban certain books and one that would ban gender-affirming healthcare for minors.
One of the organizers for the walkout is a student that we’ll call F.
F: I’m a junior at Ben Franklin High School, and I’m 17 years old.
I think before that there wasn’t really any knowledge of what was going on, especially with stuff like the book bans. So I think the walkout was really like good to spread awareness.
I also spoke with another student we’ll call Z.
Z: I’m a sophomore at Ben Franklin High School, and I use he/him pronouns.
Z is a leader in the school’s Gay Straight Alliance, or GSA.
Z: When bills started getting introduced that were affecting queer people, I was like, okay, this is there’s no option. I need to go and do something. You have to do something, like you’re being attacked.
Sophie Ziegler: This wasn’t the first walkout. There was actually another one at the school last year to support trans and queer people that got a lot of publicity and support.
But both students say this year’s felt… different.
Z: Last year I remember like I read my diary from that day and it was like, this was one of the best days of my life. Everyone is so supportive of this, and I’m so happy. And I was just really, really glad. This year was like, I don’t know, it was still, there was a lot of energy, but it felt more like sad and like pretty like broken.
F: I do agree. The 2022 walkout was much more, like it was angry and I wanna say like exuberant. Like it felt more like we were protesting in a way of showing our energy and showing like trans pride. And the 2023 walkout felt more like we were mourning the loss of potential rights.
Sophie Ziegler: The difference in tone between the two walkouts makes sense to me. From a legislative point of view, things are getting much worse. This year, there have been more anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ+ bills filed in state houses across the country than ever before. Often aimed at young people, these bills attack trans students’ ability to play sports, their access to lifesaving medical care, their ability to try new names and pronouns, and even what books they’re allowed to read in school.
With the increase of anti-trans legislation comes an increase in the backlash too. F faced some of that for helping organize the walkout.
F: And then obviously there was pushback from conservatives on social media and stuff which was really funny. My favorite thing was going onto Twitter and being like, yeah, thank you for telling me, a minor, that I’m a pedophile. I bet it has nothing to do with projection.
Sophie Ziegler: For both F and Z, this fight is personal. If these bills pass, it would change their lives… for the worse. For example, minors wouldn’t be able to get Hormone Replacement Therapy – a central part of medical care for trans and gender expansive individuals.
Z: I take testosterone. And it’s been like, one of the most amazing things that like I ever could have gotten. If you can imagine like something that like feels impossible to have but would just be really amazing, but like it’s not real and you can’t get it, and then you get it and it’s what? That’s crazy. I can have this now. So it’s been like really cool, and I’m really lucky to be on it.
The idea of it being taken away from me is like, it’s scary when there’s all of these things going on that make it feel like what I am is like illegal. It’s like hard to cope with the damage that it could do.
Sophie Ziegler: The effects of the legislation would also be severe for F.
F: Yeah, I’m not out to my parents because they, if I’m being very polite and giving them the best positive light, they don’t understand being trans or being non-binary. And if I’m viewing them in the worst negative light, they’re outwardly transphobic. So things like the don’t say gay bill and the given name bill and act or whatever, would basically just take away any chance I would be able to be out and be able to live comfortably. It would greatly impact my mental health being dead named and misgendered for school.
The stakes are high for these students and the many other minors whose lives are being debated in the Louisiana capitol. These students at Benjamin Franklin High School are part of a surge in youth organizing that’s emerged to fight anti-trans legislation in Louisiana.
Pearl Ricks: Shout out to the young people in Louisiana. Y’all are beast.
Sophie Ziegler: This is Pearl Ricks. Pearl is a trans and intersex reproductive rights organizer based in New Orleans. They are the Executive Director of the Reproductive Justice Action Collective, or ReJAC. Pearl has been in this fight for a long time.
Pearl Ricks: What happened was community members gathered and decided we needed EC, we needed emergency contraception, we needed ways to have more control over our bodies, We need information on abortion access, or we need information on how many trans men need access to emergency contraception. Where do we find that? Are they even gathering it? No.
Sophie Ziegler: Pearl, working through ReJAC, is part of the struggle for intersectional liberation. This fight includes housing justice, sex worker protections, environmental justice and more, because all of these are trans issues.
Pearl Ricks: It’s trans rights work with a reproductive justice lens. We have no choice but to be intersectional in our analysis in order to do that because trans people look like all of us. Trans people, intersex people, queer people.
There’s a genocide happening to trans people, intersex people, queer people. It has been happening. And the way that that hit Black bodies is different. So let’s bring this, this analysis into this space and see what happens. The way that that hits trans and intersex and queer bodies that are incarcerated is different. And then if you pull folks that have migrated to the US and they’re being detained and Blackness and all of these other intersections, it looks different.
Sophie Ziegler: Pearl says that it’s vital for youth like F and Z to participate in the legislative process. But their voices aren’t often heard in those spaces.
Many students might not be able to make it to the capitol. But Pearl is there.
Legislative activism is different from other types of activism. It takes a special familiarity with esoteric rules and policies. It’s a lot of educating people and finding ways to explain and humanize the harm that is so often coded as dry policy.
It’s also very difficult for most people to do. Potential laws are discussed in the middle of work day, often with very little advanced notice.
So it’s both difficult, and extremely important. And that’s why Pearl does it.
I followed them on one of these trips to the Louisiana capitol in Baton Rouge early one morning in April.
Okay, let me go ahead and start this recording. Okay, so this is Sophie. I’m in Pearl’s car. We are in beautiful, beautiful Baton Rouge. So good to be here. How are you doing today?
Pearl Ricks: Doing great. Woke up nice and early, had some coffee. Feel prepared for the day.
Sophie Ziegler: And we are prepared to go to the Capitol, which is where we’re headed now. Could you say just a little bit while you drive, to whatever extent you feel comfortable splitting your attention, about what it is that you hope to happen today, or maybe actually, let’s start with what’s, what’s going on?
Pearl Ricks: Sure. So what’s going on at the Capitol today is the Committee on Education and they will be hearing HB81 and HB466. They are respectively the don’t say gay bill and a pronoun bill. And also 466 would prohibit the instruction of gender identity and sexual orientation in schools.
Sophie Ziegler: It was one of only two times that public testimony was going to be heard.
Pearl and I parked about 5 minutes away from the capitol. We braced for the day ahead. As we walk, Pearls tells me about the struggle of organizing and also the intergenerationality of their activism.
Pearl Ricks: Cause it makes me feel like my activism is a birthright when I see how it’s played out across generations of my multiple bloodlines. You know, like the history of Black folks on this land and the purpose that I’m here now versus the purpose they were here a hundred years ago, 200 years ago, 300 years ago. And it’s just like, I don’t know. I wish I knew. I wish I could see it glowing on the ground, the steps that my ancestors took in this space, you know?
We enter the Capitol and pass through metal detectors. We walk through a high-ceiling hallway to get to the House of Representatives’ committee room.
The committee members are seated on a platform at the front of the room. The rest of the space is taken up with seating for everyone who came to testify. It was crowded. By the time our bills started, it was standing room only.
Speaker: Next bill will be HB466 by Representative Horton.
Sophie Ziegler: The “Don’t Say Gay” bill, HB466, would restrict any discussion of sexuality or gender expression from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade. That would make Gay Straight Alliances (among other things) impossible on school campuses. So students like Z wouldn’t be able to join the GSA because… they would be illegal.
We sat through more than five hours of testimony. People all over the state showed up to plead with the legislature not to pass the bills. And it was hard to watch.
Speaker: I sit before you today in opposition of this bill.
Speaker: I sit before you today in opposition of the proposed bill HB466.
Speaker: I sit before you today in opposition to HB466.
Speaker: In GSA, we’re not teaching kids to be queer or trans. We’re teaching them it’s okay to be queer and trans. If a single adult in my life would’ve told me that, that would’ve spared me years of anguish.
Speaker: When I think of this bill, I think of… I get flashbacks to my teachers and administrators constantly harassing me or bullying me.
Speaker: We shouldn’t have to beg for our humanity.
Speaker: You have never once stayed awake at night fearing that if you decided to put on a pair of pants you might be assaulted the next day you went to school.
Speaker: You’ve made a conscious choice towards a Louisiana that demonizes people like me, that assumes me as a threat, and makes our state less survivable for trans people.
Speaker: It’s frankly very scary to come up here and I know I only have a couple seconds. But this country is actively targeting people like me and a lot of my friends. And I don’t wanna have to leave, but if stuff like this happens I’m gonna have to.
Pearl Ricks: Hello again. Y’all are gonna see a lot of my face this session. My name is Pearl Ricks. My pronouns are they/them, and I am asking you to oppose HB466. Many people came up here saying that they represent students, some for and some against. Students of Ben Franklin held a walkout about bills like this. Our students have spoken very loudly. They’ve spoken across social media. They’ve spoken in the news. They have told us what they need…
Sophie Ziegler: So many people showed up to voice opposition to the bills. But despite their sometimes heart-wrenching testimony, both bills did pass the committee that day.
It was a tough day. And that’s the reality of legislative activism: long days at the Capitol that sometimes end in defeat. But those single days aren’t the entire story. Because the fight for trans rights has been ongoing for years, and it’s been successful in the past.
Amy Gastelum: We’re jumping in to remind you that you are listening to Making Contact. If you like today’s show and you want more information, or if you’d like to leave us a comment, visit us at radioproject.org. There you can access today’s show and all of our prior episodes. Okay, now back to the show.
Sophie Ziegler: Louisiana has long been an outlier among Southern states when it comes to bills that target the trans community. That began to change in 2020, when a sports ban was introduced. In 2021, two new sports bans and several other bills that would limit healthcare for transgender minors were introduced. Those bills ultimately didn’t pass.
And a big reason they didn’t pass is the presence of a state-wide cross-issue coalition that’s emerged to push back against the slate of anti-trans legislation. It’s known as locALL.
Peyton Rose Michelle: The Legislative Organizing Coalition for all LGBTQ+ Louisianans.
Sophie Ziegler: I sat down with Peyton Rose Michelle, co-founder of locALL and the Executive Director of Louisiana Trans Advocates.
Peyton Rose Michelle: So Louisiana Trans Advocates is Louisiana’s only statewide trans specific organization. For a long time we were one of the only trans organizations in Louisiana at all. The biggest resource that I think LTA can give any queer person is a community of some kind, and it was life changing for me. We are here because we needed it to survive.
locALL was formed in 2021. That was the first year that we had to fight anti-LGBTQ legislation in Louisiana. The original Google group I think was six people. Now I would estimate we have upwards of 40 to 50.
Sophie Ziegler: locALL includes dozens of organizations working on a variety of issues, from reproductive justice and school libraries to fair housing. And locALL is largely responsible for defeating all but one anti-trans bill during the 2021 and 2022 sessions.
Peyton Rose Michelle: There were queer people in the building very consistently year after year, creating relationships with these people. That created a power because Louisiana does not have a friendly legislature. We literally have a super majority of Republicans.
Sophie Ziegler: But more and more anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced, with Louisiana largely following the national trends around healthcare bans, library censorship, and the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” Bills.
The 2023 session in Louisiana has been tough for the LGBTQ+ population. locALL hasn’t seen the same success that it did in the last two.
Peyton Rose Michelle: The reason that conservatives have invested so much in fighting against queer, specifically trans people, is because they see that we have been making progress forward.
I plea to queer and trans people. Do not let these people overcome you with shame. It is not worth it. They are not right. They are not the majority. They’re not legally correct. Constitutionally they’re incorrect. They have literally nothing going for them except they talk the loudest. And have money. That’s it.
Sophie Ziegler: Activist Pearl Ricks is also a part of locALL. And that intersectionality that they bring to their work? It’s also here, in this coalition.
Pearl Ricks: I think that it’s vital that we’re able to be in rooms where other organizations exist, where other individuals that wanna plug in exist. And I feel like locALL is a fantastic space to gather that information and also implement some fantastic strategy.
Sophie Ziegler: In my reporting, one of the most common questions I’m asked is, why are there so many anti-trans bills, and why are they showing up now? This is what Pearl had to say about it.
Pearl Ricks: Transphobia, homophobia, just like the “ick, the queers are gross“ phobias have always been part of our communities, but there wasn’t this, there wasn’t a switch to genocide.
And then 2021 happened. And all of a sudden people wanted to talk about trans people. They wanted to talk about intersex people. They wanted to talk about gender being important. People were changing names. We were switching up pronouns.
We were being who we want to be, and that was an agitation to a system, to a system that already was failing in terms of its oppression, white supremacy that was being chipped away at on a national level in many different ways, on many different fronts.
So if you are a statue that is representing white supremacy, oppression, needing to have the underdog so that the upper dog can live, and there are many groups chipping away at you, you’re going to take who you think is the easiest to pick off. And those are gonna be the folks that the language to protect them is not in the law.
So I think what happened was white supremacy, the status quo, those that want to uphold the status quo said, okay, who’s being loud and annoying and disrupting what we’re trying to build, and how can we take them out?
Sophie Ziegler: The majority of these bills are coming from just a handful of conservative organizations.
The trans community is one of the few minorities not currently protected by federal or state nondiscrimination laws.
Attacking the most vulnerable is an age-old runway to launching attacks on other groups. Already there are efforts to restrict the rights of gay, lesbian and other queer communities.
Both Pearl and locALL are committed to helping grow the new wave of activists. And the movement to support trans and queer rights in Louisiana is growing.
Chant: Trans kids are here to stay, GOP go away. Trans kids are here to stay, GOP go away.
Sophie Ziegler: I was at a trans rights rally in April at the Louisiana capitol. And I spoke with a lot of people that day, including someone who was new to activism.
Hi, my name is Sophie. What’s your name?
Danielle: Hi Sophie. I’m Danielle. It’s a pleasure to meet you.
Sophie Ziegler: What brings you to the rally?
Danielle: Well, I came to fight for the rights of others and myself, trans adults, youths to make sure that our rights aren’t taken from us. This would be my first rally. My first time hearing about it and first time attending. And I don’t think it’ll be my last because, you know, trans people must fight for our rights as well.
Sophie Ziegler: The 2023 legislative session in Louisiana has been a roller coaster. We’re still waiting to find out the fate of these bills.
Regardless of the outcome of any particular bill, legislative organizing now looks different in this state. And one thing is clear. People will continue to resist legislative attacks on the trans community. And they’re not going to stop.
Lucy Kang: The trans community continues to face systemic oppression and dehumanizing laws. Our story today featured trans, intersex and queer voices. But this fight is in everyone’s hands. And getting involved in the legislative process is really important. Here’s Peyton Rose Michelle from Louisiana Trans Advocates again.
Peyton Rose Michelle: Our legislative process is so inaccessible to the general public. And it’s so confusing that I would encourage you to use that as a motivator to learn how a bill becomes law and what the process is like and how to call your legislator, which by the way is really easy. You just Google them, and their office number pops up. Please do what you can do to get involved, understand what’s happening.
Lucy Kang: The story you heard was reported and produced by the amazing Sophie Ziegler. They have their hands in many other things, including the Mapping Trans Joy project and the Solidarity History Initiative, which is part of locALL.
The fate of the anti-trans bills we mentioned today weren’t set in stone yet when we finished this episode for broadcast. For the most up to date details, check out the Louisiana Trans Advocates Legislation Tracker. We’ll have the links to all these up on our episode page at radioproject.org.
And that does it for today’s show. You’ve been listening to Making Contact. I’m Lucy Kang.